By Aaron Hillis
Eating nothing but McDonald’s for a month allowed “Super Size Me” director and star Morgan Spurlock to humorously illustrate to the masses just how toxic fast food can be. Apparently the guy likes to put his body at risk. Buzzed about since Harvey Weinstein bought the film after only watching a few minutes of it, “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” is Spurlock’s new pop docu-quest, in which the handlebar-mustachioed filmmaker concerned about the world he’s about to bring his baby son into ventures to the Middle East to talk with various Arabic people in an attempt to locate the terror-monger himself. I spoke with Spurlock not long after the film’s SXSW premiere about his controversial intentions, his journalistic ethics and how best to groom one’s beard.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on John Anderson’s Variety review from Sundance, which said the film “serves up a rehash of others’ 9/11 reportage, bin Laden biography, Islamic theology and suicide-bomber psychology.” What do you think your film brings new to the conversation?
The goal for me is to try and put these [topics] into the realm of a mass audience. While some of this stuff may not be new, I think it’s going to be new to a lot of people. Countless people came up to me after South by Southwest who had never seen any of those other documentaries who don’t read the newspaper every day or watch the news every night and I think we present stuff in a fresh, fun, accessible way. The other thing the Variety review says is that the film will surely be a hit, so I will embrace that part. [laughs]
But aren’t you concerned that the news-literate might be turned off by presenting a Middle Eastern history lesson that’s so rudimentary? I’d imagine you’d want them to see the film, too.
Well, absolutely. I think what the film does is it starts to bridge a gap. I spoke to a writer who took her son to see one of the early press screenings. Her son is 14 years old, and he loves the movie; it enabled them to have a conversation about things that were happening in the world. This is a kid who doesn’t watch the news or read the paper. I mean, most kids don’t. I didn’t when I was 14. But if we can somehow start to make this information accessible, it serves as a fantastic primer to begin a dialogue.
It’s probably not a spoiler to say you don’t answer the titular question, as people would have known long before the movie was distributed if you did. Is that title more a hook than an end goal?
Everybody who buys a lottery ticket thinks they’re going to win. So when we first came up with the idea, we thought we had as good a chance as anybody to get over there, actually find this guy, and get him to talk to us. As we started going on the journey, it became more and more evident how unimportant that really was, and how potentially dangerous it was becoming. I think I personally made the smartest decision to not go into the tribal areas, and to come home.
A lot of doc filmmakers have been criticized for putting themselves in front of the camera. I was curious why you put yourself into it when you don’t have a direct connection to the subject matter?
I don’t know if I agree with that. I think I do have a direct connection to the film. From my point of view, it is a personal journey that the viewers are vicariously going along with the ride for. I try to come into a situation honestly, portray how I’m feeling, what I think is happening, and just try to create a vicarious journey. As I learn things, you learn things. As things happen to me, they happen to you. I’m trying to explore something a lot more personal, I think.
Could the film have been made without you being in the limelight?
I think you could have, but then who would you be following? What would be the impetus? Is somebody else going to go find Osama bin Laden? There still has to be this protagonist that you’re following along this journey to find the most wanted man on the planet. Otherwise, it just becomes a doc filled with talking heads. What I want to try to avoid is making films that seem like everything else that you see.
So many traditionally structured docs are bland, I agree. But with this, there’s so much flair and pop entertainment to it. Do you consider it film journalism?
I’m a filmmaker. I think there’s a journalistic quality to it because there is discovery. There is information that comes out of it, and it’s accessible. Whereas a lot of news and stories I see on television go down like spinach. They go down like medicine. They’re not going to resonate with an audience of 18-year-olds, college kids, even young adults at times. So I think that if, in some way, I can lessen the blow of that really heavy, dense material, then it can at least serve as a jumping-off point for [audiences] to go off on their own and learn more about a subject.
Are there still ethical rules you need to follow in your brand of filmmaking?
I think you have to tell the truth. The biggest ethical thing for me is you can’t create a false situation. Nothing in this is fake. Everything that happens, happens to me as it goes along. It’s still a documentary. For me, the definition of a documentary is you’re capturing events as they unfold in real time. And that’s what we do. We’re capturing these things as we start at “A” and end at “Z.”
Though I’m thinking about when you visited the ultra-orthodox Israeli neighborhood where you were assaulted by the locals. Once the crowds became unruly and aggressive towards you, why did you stick around? Were you egging them on a little?
No, when we got there, we were just trying to ask questions. We had an Israeli producer who was there too, helping us produce within the country. They said we should go there, we should talk to these people, we’ll get great answers, and even they were completely taken aback by what happened. I mean, this really unfolded in a matter of 20 minutes. Nobody thought it was going to get to where it was. Once things started to get more hands-on and confrontational, that’s when he said, “Listen, we gotta call the police and help them get us out of here. We shouldn’t just walk away.” This was all coming from their advice. For me, the most telling thing about that scene is the guy who makes it a point to come up to me and say, “What you see here, the majority of people who live here don’t think like them.” I think that speaks volumes about all these other countries that we start to travel to where we hear these crazy, angry people on the news all the time, and that’s what we get fed everyday by the media.
Throughout the film, you show terrorists comically collected like onscreen baseball cards, and animated video game fights between yourself and bin Laden. For such a weighty subject, do you feel any responsibility to set boundaries to your snark? Is there too far in the name of taste?
Well, I think I’m surrounded by a fantastic bunch of “no” people. I’m not surrounded by “yes” men. I’m surrounded by “no” men, which I think is the best thing you can have as a filmmaker. We run things up all the flagpoles of people in our office, people who have all their alarms and whistles about [not just] what could and couldn’t be accessible, but what should and shouldn’t be in the movie. So long as we can continue to get feedback from audiences, and address as accordingly, that’s where we’ll draw the line.
You’re known for your trademark handlebar mustache, and in the film you end up growing a big, bushy, Middle Eastern-friendly beard. As someone just letting my facial hair grow out for the first time ever, could you offer me any tips on beard maintenance?
I think the key is you have to work past the scratchy phase, because that’s where it will start to feel a little more bearable. Don’t be afraid to shampoo and condition regularly; that’s the key to a good, comfortable beard. Otherwise, it’s going to get all crunchy and women won’t want to kiss you. If you just let it grow out animal style, you’ll start to see how you should shape it and what you should do. Like, do you want to go full-on Grizzly Adams, where it looks like a hedgehog landed on your face, or do you want to trim it up so it’s more sleek in tone and fits the contours of your jaw? That’s all personal choice.
[Photos: “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?”, Weinstein Co, 2008]
“Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” opens in limited release on April 18th.